I finally had a chance to sit down with HVBA Vice President, consummate musician, bandmate and all around great guy, Pete Conklin, to chat about what music means to him. It’s not easy finding Pete without an instrument in his hand. But our talk was enlightening and I’d like to share that with HVBA members.
By Jeffrey Anzevino, HVBA Founder
JA: Pete, I’ve never conducted an interviewed before.
PC: And I’ve never been interviewed.
Good we’re in tune. Pete, I think of you as Mr. Music. Music seems to be—almost, your life.
Well thanks, Jeff.
What does music mean to you?
Well, obviously a lot since it seems as if I’m either playing music or listening to it all the time. Althought it’s funny, I hardly ever listen to the radio anymore. No pop stuff, that’s for sure.
What instruments do you play?
I play the mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and now I’m working on the standup bass.
What are your earliest musical influences?
My influence is probably Walt Disney music when I was a kid. My dad also had an 8-track tape of Flatt & Scruggs—Dueling Banjos. I didn’t think it was that special at the time.
When did you first become interested in playing music? Describe the road that led you to Bluegrass music.
In high school. I wanted to play guitar. Rock and Roll. I think I was first listening to KISS when I thought I would get a guitar. So I got an acoustic guitar and took some lessons. I remember the guy taught me a 50s blues thing. In the key of C, I think.
I had a job at YCC (Youth Conservation Corps) at the FDR Home and was one of the first to clean up the property at Eleanor’s Val Kill. I saved up $500—a lot of money at the time and my friends knew this guy that had a guitar, or said he had a guitar and when he brought it over I noticed it wasn’t a guitar—it was a bass. I said, “I didn’t want the bass,” but he convinced me that I was going to be playing in all these bands. And sure enough after I got the bass I was playing. But not in any working band—just with friends. And I got together with the Rude Boys, a Punk band.
Was that your first band?
The first band was actually a Southern Rock band. We did all Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff. But somehow I got into the Punk scene and from there Rock and then Heavy Metal. We played battle of the bands and I remember playing at the Last Chance Saloon. That was a big deal!
But in between that I started taking lessons from a guy named Jeff Belding—on the bass with another guitar player because I convinced him we needed to learn something. We’d get together and play and it was just a big mish mosh. We took one lesson with Jeff—just one lesson—and came home and played in the basement. I remember my friend’s parents upstairs came running downstairs and said, “What are you guys doing? That sounds great.” They were just amazed that we finally put something together.
Eventually the bass lessons with Jeff switched to guitar lessons and one day he showed me a flatpicked version of the “Beaumont Rag” and that was really my change into Bluegrass.
Jeff and I got to be really good friends and started to play music together—not just for lessons. We’d go through Frets Magazine and they had a listing of bluegrass festivals, which we’d never heard of. So we went to the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival that year, 1983. Then in September 1984 he decided go to Winfield, Kansas to enter the flatpicking and banjo contests and I was his accompaniment. The winner that year, by the way was Steve Kaufman. And that really made me realize a lot of things when I went out there. It made me realize that I wasn’t really as good as I thought I was and that there are a lot of people playing this music. So that really opened my eyes to Bluegrass.
Also met Dan Huckabee out there and he was a big influence in my musical development. I bought a lot of his instructional materials from Homespun.
After I got married and had kids I went on a bluegrass hiatus but I kept playing electric bass with a band called Synergy and later that band turned into Lost Dog Woody, and I’m still getting together with those guys every Thursday. We play Danny Gatton and NRBQ kind of things.
Once my kids were older, in 2007, I decided to go to Grey Fox by myself. I decided that day to play mandolin.
What happened at Grey Fox that made you decide to take up the mandolin?
Walking around Grey Fox you’d see three guitar players and one mandolin player. And the melodies were so sharp and nice. I wasn’t really sure, so I borrowed a mandolin from a guy who didn’t really know how to play it either. I had no idea how to tune it up or play it. So I went on the Internet and took some lessons.
How’d you find out about the HVBA?
I work for Vassar College and one of my jobs is to make posters. One day a woman came in and she needed a poster. It was for a James King concert. And I said, “James King! I can’t believe it, he’s great. I just saw him at Grey Fox.” Of course that was Lynn Lipton and she told me about the jams at the Pirate Canoe Club. So I said, “All right I’ll check that out.”
I was very nervous at first, but I joined in and people started coming in — I probably first met you there. I found out the same thing that I learned in Winfield — that I had a lot to learn.
After a while Lynn had asked me to lead the slow jam because she noticed I was helping a lot of people out. By helping other people, somehow, it also helps me out. Bluegrass is the kind of music that you don’t need to be great at it to strum the chords.
So those first few years I met many great players — Jerry (Oland), Mike Sassano, Two Blue. It was a great experience for me and I started going back to Grey Fox and other festivals and people started asking me to join their bands.
I joined Jeff Belding’s group, Out of the Bluegrass. I played mandolin. Even took mandolin lessons with him. They’re out of Albany.
I also play with Dan Budd, he plays a lot of original music — the band is Grass Fed.
And, of course I also play with you in Rich Hines & The Hillbilly Drifters. I came to your house once with Rich and Rusty and you guys seemed to like what I was doing so I joined you guys.
Let’s get back to the Slow Jam. Tell me more about that.
With the Slow Jam I try to pick out a new song for each session — which is twice a month. It’s interesting when you pick a song for the Slow Jam because you can’t pick one that’s too out there. Like, “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” There are too many chords and many people haven’t heard it.
Trying to be slow is something to work at. I like playing songs slowly. I get tighter when I play fast songs slow — ridiculously slow.
One thing I notice about your role in the Drifters is that you’re constantly bringing new material to the band. Where do you find all these new songs.
I get sent a song a day by email—it was something I found through the HVBA’s website.
Sometimes I’d hear people at the jam play a song and I would steal it. You get tired of playing the same thing over and over again. I want to always learn new stuff. Also, learning lyrics is a hard thing but I work at it. Your voice is just another instrument so I am always working on my singing — I even learned how to yodel.
Well, Pete it’s been a pleasure.
PC: Likewise, thanks, Jeff.
Lynn Lipton: I’m that “woman” who met Peter at Vassar College that fateful day! He asked about the HVBA and then reached into his pocket and paid for his membership.
And that’s who Peter is! You just ask and it shall be given. Peter just can’t help himself….he is always there for you and there with a smile. He is generous, competent, and the best friend you could hope to have.
Thank you, Peter, for being you.
David Angell: Peter is always there to help out the HVBA. In addition to the slow jam he can be called on to do sound for the concerts. The acts can be pretty particular about the sound and Peter is always able to come up with the right mix. He has received many fine compliments by the musicians who have played for the HVBA. Thanks for all you do Peter!
Fred Robbins: Great interview of a great guy and musician. As the association’s videographer, I’ve also found that Peter’s dedication to setting up and running the sound system has been indispensable to the success of so many of our concerts, and to the audio quality of my concert videos. Behind the concert scenes, I think Peter spends more time setting up before, and breaking down after, the shows than any of my other fellow dedicated volunteers, me included. Thanks Jeff for the interview and thanks Peter for all your work, and for the joy of picking along with you at the jams!